by Morton A. Klein and Daniel Mandel
Why Israel may be forced to strike first.
One day perhaps not far off, there will be another war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Iranian terrorist proxy in Lebanon. One might assume that any future clash will be similar to past ones –– Israel struck by disruptive and occasionally lethal rocket attacks, and intense, but limited, hostilities over days or weeks, leading to a new, uneasy ceasefire. But this is unlikely. The next Lebanon war might well be like none that preceded it.
The reason is that Hezbollah, in the decade since the last Lebanon war, has amassed an astonishing arsenal of 130,000 rockets, missiles and mortars, largely provided by Iran, aimed at virtually every square inch of Israel.
As Willy Stern in the Weekly Standard reminds us, “This is a bigger arsenal than all NATO countries (except the United States) combined.” And it is the hands of a movement whose veteran leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has spoken of Israel as a “cancerous tumor” to be eliminated and of Jews to be globally murdered, saying, “if they all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.”
Worse, these are not the katyushas rockets or mortars of old, which terrify and disrupt, but kill and maim only in small numbers, mainly in Israel’s border areas.
Hizbollah’s arsenal includes over 700 long-range Fateh-10 and Scud-D missiles, sophisticated munitions which carry heavy payloads and can hit any part of Israel, killing hundreds or even thousands. Add to that new Russian anti-tank and anti-ship missiles, and future Israeli operations against Hezbollah will be scarcely a cakewalk.
With its enormous number of missiles, Hezbollah could rain down huge barrages that overwhelm Israeli anti-missile defenses, with some 10% of their missiles penetrating the Iron Dome defenses. Thus, Israeli casualties could be in the thousands and senior Israeli military figures have said as much. Israel Defense Forces Deputy Chief of Staff Major-General Yair Golan has estimated that central Israel, untouched in previous clashes, will be hit hard. “Dozens” of missiles, in his view, could hit Tel Aviv.
Where terrorists have no scruple about using whatever weapons they can obtain against an enemy nations’ civilians en masse, it is clear that it is only a matter of time until that country acts. The truth is that Israel will be obliged to do so before long, whether by its own pre-emptive initiative or in response to a devastating attack.
Israel has been constrained by a desire to avoid military clashes that harm its international reputation, so it has been reluctant to act in the past. Just recall the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel waited rather than shoulder the blame for initiating fighting, causing Israeli casualties to be in the thousands.
Israel has normally awaited a serious escalation –– a border attack with numerous casualties, for example –– before responding.
And when doing so, it has, despite false charges of overkill, harmed a lower ratio of civilians to combatants –– about one to three –– than any other army. General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Israel went to “extraordinary lengths” in the 2014 Gaza war to minimize civilians casualties.
But, the critics say, more Lebanese than Israelis have died in past clashes. Why? Because of Hizballah’s war crime, also practiced by Hamas in Gaza, of enmeshing its forces and missiles in the surrounding civilian population.
Inevitably, targeted strikes thereby sometimes kill civilians as well as terrorists. Thus, though this is the moral and legal responsibility of Hezbollah, a jaundiced world, which either dislikes Jews or fears Arabs, or both, holds Israel responsible, thereby incentivizing Hizbollah’s war crimes into the future.
Such dilemmas will only be enlarged for Israel now, given that to await a Hezbollah first strike with this sort of weaponry is to await a massacre of its people.
In short, Israel will have no option but to act and Hezbollah, with its rocket launchers deep in strongholds like Beirut’s Dahiya neighborhood, will ensure that many civilians die as a result. The only question is how the world will react.
To judge by history, the international reaction will be as before: foreign offices across the world will condemn violence on both sides, admit Hezbollah is misbehaving –– few will call its acts war crimes –– but reserve their strongest condemnation for Israel.
Yet, the world could act differently and thereby profoundly alter Hizbollah’s thinking as a result. Thus far, there has been no sign of this happening. The U.S. can start changing that by speaking up before there is war, demanding verified Hezbollah disarmament within a clear period, in the absence of which it will state that Israeli pre-emptive action will be justified and supported. If President Obama remains mute, the Congress need not.
Morton A. Klein is National President of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA).
Dr. Daniel Mandel is Director of the ZOA’ s Center for Middle East Policy and author of H.V. Evatt & the Establisment of Israel (Routledge, London, 2004).
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